Dissolving Ravioli.  Frozen Rose.  Gorgonzola Globe.  Ice Vinaigrette.

A few months ago I came across a documentary on Netflix called El Bulli.  I started watching it and soon found myself engrossed, but in a kind of “this is utterly bizarre but I can’t stop watching” way.  One of the chefs in the program was preparing something called kaki, which I later looked up and discovered is a Japanese persimmon.  He cooked it in every possible way – baked, dried, jellied, and juiced.  Not only that, he would photograph each outcome and then take notes, meticulously documenting every step.  His fellow chefs would hunker down around him, look at the kaki, taste it, look at each other, debate the flavor, talk about the texture – ideas for preparing it in other ways.  And as I was watching all of this, I kept wondering, “What are these guys doing, and WHY?”

El Bulli was the most experimental and controversial restaurant in the world.  They received up to 1,000,000 reservation requests a year, but only 8,000 people could get a table there.  And its chef Ferran Adrià has been acclaimed “the best cook on the planet” by none other than Joel Robuchon, himself considered to be the best chef in the world.  When Chef Adrià took over El Bulli his goal was not to put a new spin on classic recipes.  Oh no.  He wanted to invent a new way of cooking altogether.  To "provoke, surprise, and delight the diner” by engaging ALL of their senses – sight, sound, smell and touch - as well as taste.  In his view, the ideal customer would come to elBulli not just to eat, but to have an experience.  In order to achieve this goal, the restaurant closed down for 6 months each year so that the chefs could experiment and invent new dishes for the menu.  And their creations were so novel that new cooking equipment had to be invented to prepare them!  The ways in which the dishes would be served was worked out with as much care and attention as the dishes themselves.

Needless to say, all this invention and acclaim has also created controversy.  Some have argued that elBulli’s concept is pretentious.  Watching the documentary, it did strike me how very technical their creative process is.  Even the way they eat, the motions of getting the food from the plate to the mouth – even this seemed to be worked out to precision.  Not very romantic or appetizing.  But I have to say, I respect and admire anyone willing to go out on a limb to create something completely new.  I’ve always been fascinated by the process of creating food that is not only delicious, but beautiful to look at – like edible works of art.  And seeing elBulli’s completed dishes, watching the diners experience them, was exciting.

So when I learned that Somerset House in London was having an exhibit on elBulli, I had to go.  Really cool.  The exhibit is as creative and fresh as Chef Adrià’s food.  In one section they have a table laid out with a white cloth and the image of a man’s hands and arms projected onto the table top, eating a meal as it’s served to him course by course.  You can sit at the table and pretend you’re the diner!

El Bulli the restaurant is now closed.  It will reopen as the El Bulli Foundation – a kind of food lab for experimentation and training.  They’ve also started what’s called Bullipedia, an online library of all of the gastronomic knowledge they’ve acquired over the years.  Eventually you’ll be able to go online and choose any one of their hundreds and hundreds of dishes, see how it was made, and experiment with the recipe yourself.

Check out some of El Bulli’s distinctive dishes.  Or read about one diner’s firsthand experience.  Controversial they may be, but they are also certainly unique.  And as far as I can tell, you don't forge new ground without digging a little dirt.

PictureAn edible Bulli made for the restaurant's closing day

PictureThe bulli was made with meringue, the flowers with sugarpaste


08/25/2013 7:57am

Oh my gosh, Vicki! This was fascinating! Not one bit of it had been on my radar. How utterly cool.

08/25/2013 9:12am

Oh, it probably wasn't here when you were. Really has nothing to do with England, but I LOVE this documentary and this guy's philosophy on food. I think it's so fascinating! Wish I could've eaten at his place. Isn't it cool?


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